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Auto Recalls: The Basics

The need to remove unsafe vehicles from our roads—primarily through auto recalls—is but one of many priorities dictated by the tragic loss of approximately 42,000 lives annually on the nation's highways. In this country, traffic crashes are the primary cause of paraplegia (paralysis below the waist), and the number one killer of Americans under age 34. The annual economic loss to society because of these crashes, in terms of worker productivity, medical costs, insurance costs, etc., is estimated at more than $150 billion. Clearly, there is a need for dramatic improvement in motor vehicle safety, and a key method of improving that safety is through auto recalls and the recall of defective vehicle equipment.

Since 1966, more than 299 million cars, trucks, buses, recreational vehicles, motorcycles and mopeds, as well as 43 million tires and 84 million pieces of motor vehicle equipment, including child seats, have been recalled to correct safety defects.

See the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) automobile recall portal for updates on vehicle and vehicle-related recalls. 

When is an Auto Recall Necessary?

Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards set minimum performance requirements for those parts of the vehicle that most affect its safe operation (brakes, tires, lighting) or that protect drivers and passengers from death or serious injury in the event of a crash (air bags, safety belts, child restraints, energy absorbing steering columns, motorcycle helmets) and are applicable to all vehicles and equipment manufactured or imported for sale in the United States (including the territories) certified for use on public roads and highways. A recall becomes necessary:

  1. When a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment (including tires) does not comply with a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard.
  2. When there is a safety-related defect in the vehicle or equipment.

Safety-Related Defects

The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (1966) gives the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the authority to issue vehicle safety standards and to require manufacturers to recall vehicles with safety-related defects or that do not meet safety standards. Generally, a safety-related defect is a problem that exists in a motor vehicle or item of motor vehicle equipment that:

  1. poses an risk to motor vehicle safety, and
  2. may exist in a group of vehicles of the same design or manufacture, or items of equipment of the same type and manufacture.

Examples of safety defects include:

  • Steering components that break suddenly causing partial or complete loss of vehicle control.
  • Problems with fuel system components, particularly in their susceptibility to crash damage, that result in leakage of fuel and possibly cause vehicle fires.
  • Accelerator controls that may break or stick.
  • Wheels that crack or break, resulting in loss of vehicle control.
  • Engine cooling fan blades that break unexpectedly causing injury to persons working on a vehicle.
  • Windshield wiper assemblies that fail to operate or malfunction.
  • Seats and/or seat backs that fail unexpectedly during normal use.
  • Critical vehicle components that break, fall apart, or separate from the vehicle causing loss of vehicle control or injury to persons inside or outside the vehicle.
  • Wiring system problems that result in a fire or loss of lighting.
  • Car ramps or jacks that collapse causing injury to someone working on a vehicle.
  • Air bags that deploy under conditions for which they are not designed to deploy.
  • Child safety seats that contain defective safety belts, buckles, or components that create a risk of injury, not only in a vehicle crash but also in non-operational safety of a motor vehicle.

Defects Unrelated to Safety

Problems with vehicles or equipment generally not considered to be safety-related defects under federal law include:

  • Air conditioners and radios that do not operate properly.
  • Ordinary wear of equipment that has to be inspected, maintained, and replaced periodically. Such equipment includes shock absorbers, batteries, brake pads and shoes, and exhaust systems.
  • Nonstructural or body panel rust.
  • Quality of paint or cosmetic blemishes.
  • Excessive oil consumption.
  • The vehicle does not meet federal emissions standards.

How Does an Auto Recall Start?

Many auto recalls are initiated voluntarily by the vehicle/equipment manufacturers, while others are either influenced by NHTSA investigations or complaints by vehicle owners.

Most decisions to conduct a recall and remedy a safety defect are made voluntarily by manufacturers prior to any involvement by NHTSA. Through their own tests, inspection procedures and information gathering systems, manufacturers often discover that a safety defect exists or that the requirements of a safety standard have not been met. If a safety defect is discovered, the manufacturer must notify NHTSA, as well as vehicle or equipment owners, dealers, and distributors. The manufacturer is then required to remedy the problem at no charge to the vehicle owner. NHTSA is responsible for monitoring the manufacturer's corrective action for adequacy and for compliance with statutory requirements.

Also, as vehicles age with use, certain design and performance problems may occur which are often reported by owners to NHTSA. These reports form the basis for NHTSA's defect investigations, which often result in significant safety recalls.

How Will I Be Notified if an Auto Recall Is Ordered or Initiated?

Within a reasonable time after the determination of a safety defect or noncompliance, manufacturers must notify, by first-class mail, all registered owners and purchasers of the affected vehicles of the existence of the problem and give an evaluation of its risk to motor vehicle safety. The manufacturer must explain to consumers the potential safety hazards presented by the problem. Names of vehicle owners are obtained from State motor vehicle offices. The letter must instruct consumers on how to get the problem corrected, remind them that corrections are to be made at no charge, inform them when the remedy will be available, how long the remedy will take to perform, and whom to contact if there is a problem in obtaining the free recall work.

What Are the Ways in Which a Recalled Vehicle or Item of Equipment May Be Remedied?

Once a defect determination is made, the law gives the manufacturer three options for correcting the defect: repair, replacement, or refund. The manufacturer may choose to repair the vehicle; replace the vehicle with an identical or similar vehicle; or refund the purchase price in full, minus a reasonable allowance for depreciation. In the case of equipment, including tires and child safety seats, the manufacturer can either repair or replace. If you're considering pursuing a car defect claim it's in your best interests to contact a product liability attorney.  

Contact the manufacturer if you have any additional questions about an auto recall. 

Next Steps
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